JAKARTA – A choking haze from fires, most of them in Indonesia, is blanketing large parts of peninsular Malaysia, creating health problems, threatening tourism and disrupting one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Following are some facts about the haze, which affects parts of Southeast Asia every year.
WHO’S TO BLAME?
Fire has been a traditional part of the Indonesian and Malaysian landscape for thousands of years during the April-October dry season. Farmers have long practised small-scale land clearing by cutting down trees and scrub and then burning the debris.
But in recent decades, the population has risen sharply on Sumatra and Borneo islands, creating ever more demand for land to grow cash-crops in resource-rich but impoverished Indonesia.
Timber companies, illegal loggers and palm oil companies have also cleared vast areas and burn off debris during the dry season in Indonesia and parts of Malaysia.
HOW TO TACKLE IT?
Regional action plans have been created to try to tackle the haze, such as joint fire-fighting efforts and cloud seeding. Monitoring has greatly improved, but lax enforcement, corruption and poor resources have confounded efforts to curb the annual fires.
Severe haze can cost the tourism, shipping, airline and health sectors dearly.
Malaysia says the haze crisis is the worst to face the country in eight years. During a severe drought in 1997-98, huge fires on Sumatra and Borneo created the region’s worst haze crisis in living memory, blanketing large parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei as well as southern Thailand.
More than 40,000 people were hospitalised with respiratory and other haze-related ailments, tourist numbers plunged, transport was disrupted, including along the busy Strait of Malacca. In total, the 1997-98 haze crisis is believed to have cost the region about $9 billion.
The United Nations Environment Programme labelled the blaze among the most damaging in recorded history.
Making matters worse, the annual fires release huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases and linked to global warming.
Large areas of drained peat bogs in Kalimantan have been burned in recent years. Once these catch fire, peat bogs can burn for months. Underground coal seams have also caught fire and can burn for years.